Just to start, I would like to say I'm still disappointed yesterday's thread didn't have a playlist attached with The Glory of Love on it. (Hoping no one else made that terrible joke, as I haven't read the comment section.)
I had the radio on again in the car the other night, flipping from station to station, and happened across a conversation on the ESPN affiliate. (Yes, it was the same host I've referenced before.) The host was posing what I thought was a remarkably stupid question to his audience, and so of course I found myself compelled to listen. As an aside, I've found this to be a hazard of writing about sports more or less professionally; where in the past I might simply ignore some aspect of the sporting narrative I found tiresome, I now am basically duty-bound to soak up pretty much everything in an effort to stay as well informed as possible about both matters factual and the public opinion attached to said matters.
The question being bandied about was this: what would you consider a successful first season from Mike Matheny as manager?
Upon hearing the question, my immediate response was, "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. How in the hell can you decide what a successful season would be for a new manager when you literally don't know what team he's going to be managing yet?"
Sadly, yelling that at my radio did not have the desired effect; my words apparently failed to reach either the host or his audience, who began calling in with their opinions on how well Mike Matheny would have to do in year one to be a success. A couple said they would consider it a success if the Cards made the playoffs. A couple others used the nebulous term Competitive. One actually postulated a specific record (though the exact number escapes me at the moment), which I found particularly bizarre. Another, perhaps incorrectly channeling the recently ghostified Al Davis, opened his answer with, "Just...wins, you know?"
Then one gentlemen had a better answer, I thought. He talked about wanting to see certain benchmarks from the team and from Matheny. He wanted to see the team playing disciplined ball, and Matheny displaying good leadership. You know, the sort of thing you can actually speculate about even before you know what the team is going to look like. Very general stuff you might actually want to attribute to a manager. Nebulous and kind of wishy-washy, perhaps, but at least it wasn't a win/loss record.
So the host then cleverly turns the question back on his hapless caller, asking, "Well, okay, what if the team is doing all of those things, and they go, say, 80-82? Will you consider that a success?"
There was more discussion after that, I'm sure, but by that time I was too livid to hear it. I'm glad it was dark, and thus likely impossible for other motorists to see me, because I started just screaming at the radio. After all, it was bad enough when they were just idly speculating about what would constitute a successful first season in very general terms. This, though, this was an actual debate about what kind of record would or would not be acceptable from a manager in his first year managing a team that has yet to sign a single free agent, make a single trade, or even finish deciding which players still under club control will be tendered contracts. The best player in baseball may or may not be on the team next year. That's going to make a bit of a difference as to how good we expect them to be, don't you think? And yet here is this debate taking place in the middle of November over what would be a successful season for a team we have yet to know virtually anything about.
But then it hit me. I was looking at this all wrong. Sure, the crazy people who live inside my radio were crazy, but I should absolutely have understood where they were coming from.
For someone conditioned solely by watching a Tony La Russa baseball team, it makes sense to establish a benchmark for success now. Sure, we don't know what the team is going to look like, but if La Russa is your control, you just might be inclined to think it doesn't matter.
For the past fifteen years, the Cardinals have been managed by the genius of all geniuses, the one and only manager in the game who so consistently seemed to get the credit for success and failure over his players. La Russa himself was smart enough to understand it wasn't justified, but no matter how many times he said he was lucky enough to be surrounded by great players it just didn't quite hold up to the narrative. (Actually, perhaps I shouldn't be so hasty as to assume La Russa really didn't believe he was the responsible party; there were times when arrogance certainly seemed to get the best of him. It's difficult to speak too very poorly of the departed though, you understand.) George Will and Buzz Bissinger both wrote books about him, after all. Not about the teams, about the manager. The players were only the pieces on his chess board, to be moved and set as needed to win the match.
Of course, believing it is the manager who makes the players successful, rather than the other way around, is complete foolishness. As foolish, in fact, as arguing how good a .500 record would be for a team that as yet does not exist, but if you believe one, the other makes perfect sense.
It's an old truism that you never want to be the guy who replaces the legend; you want to be the guy who replaces the guy who replaced the legend. Trying to forge an identity in the longest of shadows is incredibly difficult, and the standards aren't always fair.
But what Mike Matheny will be contending with won't be only the weight of replacing a legend. He has to replace what is a genuine cult of personality if ever there has been one in the game of baseball, and I wonder if he'll be able to bear that weight. Or, at least, if that weight will allow him to ever be judged fairly. Mike Matheny will not manage a baseball game the way Tony La Russa did; of that fact I am certain. And when the first losing streak hits, and Matheny hasn't even once played his second baseman in left field thanks to a 7-for-9 batting mark against the day's starting pitcher, I wonder what the people arguing wins and losses in November will say. Will they call it growing pains? A slump? A long season? Will they say stay the course and let the players play? Perhaps.
Then again, there's a part of me that wonders how long before we hear questions about Matheny's preparedness when the media reveals he doesn't carry a stack of index cards in his pocket with arcane, meaningless bits of information on them. How long will it take for the second-guessing to start when the same lineup takes the field three days in a row and all three games go poorly?
I don't know what kind or how good of a manager Mike Matheny will be. No one really does. But I do know he has a tough road ahead trying to escape an awfully long shadow. Hopefully he at least gets to manage a game or two before it's decided whether or not he succeeded.